Paul Geddes, Direct Line CEO, talks to Plutarch about leadership


Being a leader is about choosing the "state" and "culture" of the organisation and the part they play in it. 

There are several important words in this simple sentence.

First is “choosing”. Every CEO has a “boss” in the form of a Chairman and Investors, and inevitably will be buffeted by competition, the market, and the media. A weak leader will allow these factors to get straight through to the organisation and as a result, if things aren’t going well, panic will set in and be difficult to expel. A strong leader is a fire break or shock absorber - choosing the most productive state for his or her organisation to be in. Clearly, there are potential dangers here - a troubled business needs to understand the truth of their situation rather than be deluded. Leaders must provide some constancy of state to prevent the organisation bouncing up and down with their mood and the external factors they face. That’s because the whole organisation follows their lead. 

By “state” I mean whether the organisation is feeling offensive or defensive, innovative and risk taking or safe and delivery focused, short term or long term, cost or growth focused, relaxed and confident or wired and anxious. This “state” should fit the business situation and it is crucial that the leader chooses the right one, even if that isn’t how they are personally feeling that day. That may mean making the business more anxious by highlighting future risks or potential new competitors if they smell complacency. Similarly, an organisation may need a dose of confidence to withstand a tough period, reminding everyone of their past victories and inherent advantages.

A bad leader imposes their preferred style but a great leader will choose the culture they want to build that fits the business situation and market they are in.

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Paul Geddes is currently the CEO of Direct Line Insurance Group.

His background includes senior marketing and commercial roles in retailers. He began his career at Procter & Gamble.